5 Reasons the Scariest Thing Ever Written Is a Kids' Book
When we were kids in the '80s, pornography was hidden from our eyes for fear it would warp us -- and with good reason. The only way we could see a skin mag was to sneak into the homeless camp at the abandoned drive-in, brain a hobo with a log and take the porn from his lifeless corpse. Now you're a murderer, and it's all because some people look good naked.
These days, of course, you can have any kind of porn you want on the Internet, and it won't cost you anything more than some Russian spyware recording your every keystroke. But that horny time was still better than this porny one. (Unless you're a hobo. But if you are, why are you on the Internet? Go ride a railcar.) You see, in that era, we had easy access to something far more disturbing than a woman faking an orgasm. We could walk into any library and check out three volumes of terror called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
I am more scared of these stories than I am of real dangers.
I know you young people think you know horror, what with all the sea monsters and Australian people Cracked gives you the phobias about, but the liquid terror of these books fueled enough nightmares to run Elm Street out of business. The series was a cavalcade of butchery, spooks, demons, disease, death and other delights. So here are the reasons Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark remains the greatest batch of horror ever kind enough to warp our childhoods.
A good ghost story stops at the most horrifying point in the tale. Scary Stories stopped at the most horrifying point in the universe. Many of the entries ran no longer than a page or two, but while they did, they ran like hell. Scary Stories is responsible for more psychotherapy than freshman year and clown sex combined.
The original creepypasta.
Not only did half the tales lack explanation; they defied it. Evil exists because evil exists, the book whispered in our minds, and death is not only inevitable, but the best option. To deny death is to deny life, and make mockery of the natural order. You'd kiss the reaper gladly if the alternatives were to become a shambling, murderous husk or a rattling wisp, damned forever. Or worse, Jim Belushi.
Also, ninja turtles aren't real. We learned a lot of hard truths that year.
This is Harold.
Augh it's on the roof why is it fascinated with the roof?!
His button eyes sparkle with hate, and while that feature has gotten me lots of dates with other broken people, Harold uses his gaze for something almost as unhealthy: murder.
Harold is a scarecrow who comes alive because two lonely cowboys didn't have the good sense to Brokeback away the days. If they'd only turned their energies to love and pudding instead of mistreating poor Harold, he might never have self-animated. Let this be a lesson about the importance of love wherever we find it, and also about not torturing murder-dolls.
The fact that he totters around like a drunken two-year old is way creepier than some juggernaut of violence coming at your throat in promise of a swift death. Hell, we can get that in real life just watching Shark Week, or working retail on Black Friday.
Not here, though. Harold's two hobbies are spontaneous generation and anti-life, and he's grotesquely inexperienced at both. You get the idea that next time he'll know to kill the screaming thing before ripping its skin from skull to knees like a plucked chicken ... but for now he's discovering his technique as an artist.
If you asked Hieronymous Bosch to illustrate a children's collection of ghost stories, these are the pictures he would draw while quitting heroin. I would rather get pity-sex from a menstruating spider than gaze upon any of this art after sunset.
Illustrator Stephen Gammell claimed he never expected anyone to take these over-the-top monstrosities seriously. And that's an excuse that fools the kind of adults misguided enough to "protect" children. But kids are savages who haven't learned to lie to themselves yet, and they don't flinch from the truth. The fact is these drawings are the perfect match for the stories. They're also perfect for summoning Rax, the god of murder who appears in four ancient cultures that, strangely, had no contact with each other.
I was a child and someone let me see this.
When arranged in the right order, the series' illustrations form a panorama with no beginning and no end and no hope. Some kids in Iowa once configured the infinipych, and all that was found of them was a lock of singed hair and a bloody hand print that had six fingers. The house where they disappeared was sold 10 times in seven years, until it was burned down by its final owner, who to this day will only gibber, "The sinking world has seen us ... and it hungers." He does not sleep.
The book was re-released last year for its 30th anniversary with new illustrations, and they're very well drawn -- exactly what you'd commission for a kids' book of ghost stories. But not for this title. We've seen the impossible geometries of terror now, and your false world, where mothers don't devour their babies and a sane God dances in the sky, is a lie we can never swallow again.
Come on, HarperCollins, don't deprive readers of the original books' mind-scraping horror. These are scary stories; you don't defang a crocodile and then talk about how good it is with children.
Evil Warning Woman is what happens when the unknown and the inevitable make a terror-baby. She appears in an artist's dream to convince her to flee an evil house. But whoopsie! Trying to avoid her fate takes her straight to the room she was supposed to dodge. And there she runs into the woman from her vision.
It's one of the book's tamest stories -- the tale of the Englishwoman who changed her travel plans. Nothing terrible happens. Its eeriness is mostly derived from the dread of an evil premonition coming true, a feeling we're all acclimated to in the United States from every year the Yankees win the World Series.
Oh, but did you see the dream woman in question?
"Haha I'm not touching you!"
Look, not everybody you meet in life is going to have a neck. Some people can't afford one is all. So you shouldn't fault them for overcompensating with extra chins. But even if they discreetly cover their nudity with raspy, black straw hair, a moonfaced smirk doesn't apologize for their godless, bloated body. This thing looks like a 17th century corn husk doll that strips on Tuesday nights to support its four kids. After the illustration, this anecdote could give Lady Bathory a cold chill.
And this is the HELPFUL monster. Just watch as Gammell cuts loose on cannibalism, skin-walkers and swamp-zombies.
Schwartz was a storyteller, and exhaustively cited all the sources in his book to preserve a bit of folk history. That's very impressive, since you can only make a small number of pages from the skin of a virgin seventh son who committed suicide.
His citations are revealing; you can tell a lot about a person by what they're afraid of, and the same goes for societies. For example, people from South Dakota are afraid of having their limbs ripped from their joints by the restless dead. A North Dakotanese person knows that's superstitious hogwash, and the real danger is the wendigo that prowls the frozen forest. And those of us who have traveled the great 48 in these troubled times know the only thing we have to fear is fAAAAHH GOD HERE IT COMES!
In one setting, two Americans vacation in Mexico, back when that was the first line of a scary story instead of the last. They find an adorable little dog, and bring it home, because U.S. Customs can suck it. After a few days, the pooch appears to be sick, so they take it to the veterinarian, who immediately diagnoses the dog ...
The doctor also discovered the owners were blind.
... as a gigantic, rabid rat.
This tale speaks to a very real fear of having to deal with oblivious American tourists. But it's even more obviously a cautionary fable about contamination in what scared rich people consider a dirty, poor country. And you know they're rich because they're dumb enough to want a tiny dog. Rule of thumb is if it lets you carry it in a purse, it's not a dog; it's a proximity alarm that refuses to be housebroken. Chihuahuas only have two emotions: jealousy and tremble, and neither one appeals to a person who has to suffer through a real job.
No practical, responsible human being would make the mistake of smuggling a lousy little doglet, or as they call it in Mexico, un perrito. (Holy cow, you guys! I just made that up and it turns out that is the RIGHT WORD!) This story tells us that in privileged America's view, Mexico is a trap where even the pleasant joys are hidden horrors ... at least if you're a snooty richie. Those of us who do an honest day's labor know rabies is actually one of the cooler diseases. It's as close to zomboids as we're going to get on this earth.
And without it, we would never have such moving works as Old Yeller and Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Other stories in this cultural Rorschach blot include a deadly elevator (fear of technology/enclosed spaces), a poisonous ball gown (fear of shoddy merchandise) and a girl who ventured the unfamiliar streets of Paris to fetch medicine for her sick mother, only to find the hoteliers don't remember her (fear of dealing with a French concierge).*
*Concierge is a French word meaning "with contempt for you."
Mr. Schwartz was, by all appearance, an interesting, intelligent man who loved folklore and was willing to scare the bejeezus out of kids. This is difficult but necessary work for any man of conscience. After all, if children never know fear, what will they overcome to grow stronger? Schwartz wasn't trying to ruin our childhood; he was seasoning us to inherit the earth.
Seasoning us with the yellow-bitter curry of fear.
Fear doesn't care what your rational mind knows. When you've been spooked, fear is a cocktail working its way through your veins, and until it flushes out of your system, your brain devises any reason to explain the lingering terror. Evolutionarily speaking, it's better to react first and analyze later. You don't need to know what the hell is behind you; all you need to know is that it has teeth and it's getting closer.
Paranoia is a hell of a drug.
Scaring kids is especially easy because kids are in a state of uncertainty ALL THE TIME. They're wired to be terrified of the dark, so that they don't wander into it. And even when they're calm they're trying to figure what's real. They're still learning how to discern all the lies we tell them from their real experience. That's why I lie to my nieces all the time -- so they get a lot of good practice calling out adults on our BS.
What really sets Scary Stories apart is its complete willingness to terrify you not just imminently but existentially. Freddy and Jason are resilient slashers, but in these pages lurk the inconceivable truths no mortal should have to comprehend.
That's why kids are the only ones who can face them. When you're young enough that every shadow holds shapeless terrors, this kind of abject ghoulishness smudges your fear into recognizable shapes. Once you've faced the ultimate horror, you can process everyday terrors like divorce, death and -- oh God, I just realized something. What if there are mole people burrowing under the bed? Well, even if there are, at least you won't be skinned alive a goddamn lumpy scarecrow's bare hands.
This is not easy work, terrifying children all day. But our hero Alvin Schwartz was willing to take on the hard task of making us stronger.
A motorist takes shelter in an empty house when something god-awful comes tumbling down the chimney.
That awkward moment when you tell someone they lack a face.
Ah, hell, look at that giant ... whatever it is, probably some German monster with a weird name like Teufelslufthaupt. It's got a noggin so big that time moves slower near its surface, and an arm with enough reach to stop Wilt Chamberlain at the top of the key. The poor guy has no chance against this god of monsters. He dives through a window and runs until he's about to die from exhaustion. He can't see the thing anymore, so he finally stops sprinting, and sucks in some air. That's when he feels its hand on his shoulder ...
... and it asks him, "Pardon me, is something wrong?"
See, Mr. Schwartz also gives you some comedy. These books ultimately teach you to laugh at horrors. It's a map of fear, and that includes the best trail out of the countryside.
Even more than most genres, horror stories are an information game. You show the audience just enough to let their brains run wild with terrifying possibility, and then draw them along towards an awful inevitability. But if you're worried about burning out the terror centers in their brains, it's nice to offer them a breather now and again with something like this.
It's almost cute, in a suffocating damnation kind of way.
When you keep ratcheting up the fear and then recontextualize the story so one of the elements is no longer a threat, you teach people reason and courage: circumstances change, and we can be the ones to change them
In this case, we expect the story of unreasonable evil, but we get someone whose behavior is polite and helpful despite appearances. The readers who still want to bludgeon the monster after it proves to be a nice guy are never going to leave home and probably grow up to vote Tea Party.
This is one of the most prohibited books in school library history, right after Mein Kampf for Kidz but ahead of Debbie Does Decimals. And with good reason -- any school worldly enough to teach evolution is going to prohibit a book that proves, by virtue of being a portal to Hell, that Satan is real (and wants you to believe in evolution).
The thing is, a book that's provocative enough to get banned is interesting enough to scare people who don't understand that reading doesn't make something reality. Mein Kampf is a grotesque document but it can give insight into how authoritarian goons think so that we recognize such arguments the next time a demagogue uses them. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses an awful word casually ... but only to show how dehumanizing that word really is, and how you should stand by good people no matter what society tells you to do.
Most books are useful to society one way or another if read critically. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark performs the important function of scarring children. Besides, I actually had to read Atlas Shrugged for high school English, and that dreck is worse for tender psyches than a thousand spiders pouring from an open boil.
As seen here and in that nightmare you can never remember upon waking.
No matter how bad things get (spider bite) they can always get worse (spider eggs). But if we're willing to open our minds to the horrific possibilities, we can handle them. That's what these books taught us, with tales of folks who didn't always lose their cool when they came eye-to-eye-socket with their worst fears. A controlled setting like these pages gives us a sandbox in which to practice these confrontations, and rather than be warped by them, shape them to our needs -- even if those needs are to slowly and agonizingly murder the witch who cursed us.
Because I love my nieces, I shall be giving them the gift of pants-wetting terror this Halloween. It's not just a fun thrill; it's a chance to look what scares you in the eye, challenge it and grow to realize the only thing we have to fear is fAAAAHH GOD HERE IT COMES AGAIN!!